Preston North End haven’t been a top-flight English league club since 1960-61. But it might not be long until they are back, based on their brilliant start to the Championship campaign.
Ryan Lowe’s side are top of the table after seven matchweeks, with a 2-1 victory over Birmingham City on Tuesday night their latest success. Six wins and a draw mean that they have 19 points from a possible 21 – already 27% of their 63-point tally from last season, just 15% of the way through the season.
Will 2023-24 be the season that Preston finally win a place back in the top flight in 63 years?
Don’t Forget Your History
Preston North End have an illustrious history. The first ever winners of the English Football League top division in 1888-89 before winning it again the following season, they formed part of the English top flight in 46 of the first 62 seasons of the EFL. They have also featured in seven FA Cup finals, winning two. Of course, that title win in 1889 saw them become the original ‘Invincibles’ as they completed an entire season undefeated in league and cup competition (27 games).
Up to the end of their last top-flight season in 1960-61, Preston were among the top 10 teams for total top-flight wins (671) and 11th for total games played in the top tier in England. Powered by the legendary England forward Sir Tom Finney – their all-time top scorer with 210 goals – they were one of England’s biggest clubs, with more wins than clubs like Manchester United (618), Chelsea (491) and Tottenham Hotspur (448). Even today, they’ve still won more top-flight league games than current Premier League clubs Bournemouth, Brentford, Brighton and Luton Town combined (502).
So, with such a great start to the season, could they seal a place back in the top flight for 2024-25? Based on history, the omens are positive.
Does a Strong Start Mean Anything?
Dropping just two points in the opening seven games of a Championship season absolutely shouldn’t be sniffed at. As one of the most competitive leagues in Europe, winning as many as 19 points across the first seven matches of the English second tier is both rare and difficult to achieve.
Across the last 30 years of the second tier in England, only eight teams have won as many as 19 points across their first seven games of the season. Of those, only Fulham in 2000-01 won maximum points (21), while Bolton (2000-01), Watford (2000-01), Portsmouth (2002-03), Wolves (2008-09), QPR (2010-11), Brighton (2015-16) and Reading (2020-21) have all started with six wins and a draw from the first seven matches. Of those eight teams, five have won promotion at the end of the season, with four of them finishing as title winners.
Cautionary tales that Preston will be hoping to avoid come from Watford, who ended ninth in 2000-01, and Reading, the most recent of these eight teams, who ended just outside the play-offs in seventh place three seasons ago after their strong start. Brighton cruelly ended 2015-16 in third on goal difference before losing in the play-off semi-finals but won promotion as runners-up to Newcastle a season later.
When Ryan Lowe arrived at Preston in December 2021, the Lancashire club were in 18th position with just 25 points from their opening 21 games in 2021-22. While not obviously in the fight for relegation – they were 11 points above 22nd-placed Peterborough at the time – Preston looked like a club settled in mediocrity.
After winning promotion back to the Championship from League One in 2014-15, Preston had settled in as an established second-tier side without ever really looking like winning promotion or getting relegated. None of their first six seasons back in the Championship saw them finish lower than 14th, but while Lowe’s first full season at the club didn’t see a huge improvement (12th in 2022-23), the club are now seeing the fruits of his labour less than two years after appointing him.
Lowe has experience of promotion. He led both Bury and Plymouth Argyle to automatic promotion from League Two across his first two full seasons as a manager in 2018-19 and 2019-20, and looked set to potentially follow this up with a third promotion in four years, with Plymouth placed fourth, and two points off the league leaders, in League One in December 2021. Then Preston came knocking. Lowe resigned, much to Plymouth fans’ disdain, and took the role at the Championship club.
Lowe’s arrival helped to stir Preston into a stronger second half of the season. Only seven clubs won more points than they did (39) following his appointment at the club. Now, 78 league games after he was put in charge, Preston have won more points than any of the other 14 clubs to have been Championship ever-presents since he arrived (121). Continue that trajectory, and Preston could be a Premier League club next season.
The success that Lowe’s achieved at Preston so far shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Since his first full season in charge of Bury in 2018-19, he’s won 99 league games as a manager – only Pep Guardiola (147), Jürgen Klopp (133) and Darren Moore (104) have won more across that period within the top four tiers of English league football, while his points-per-game average of 1.57 is a shade higher than managers like Thomas Frank (1.56) and Marco Silva (1.53).
What’s Changed This Season?
There wasn’t a huge overhaul in Preston’s playing staff this summer, especially compared to other Championship clubs, but that’s arguably helped Lowe achieve the start he’s managed in 2023-24.
Key midfielder Daniel Johnson moved to Stoke after rejecting a contract offer at Preston, while summer arrivals Mads Frøkjær-Jensen and Duane Holmes have appeared in every single league game so far and added much-needed creativity to their attack – no Preston player has created more chances than both Frøkjær-Jensen (six) and Holmes (eight) from open play across their opening seven games of this season.
Another summer arrival, striker Will Keane from Wigan, has started well with four goals and an assist in his five Championship appearances. With the only two players to score more than five league goals for PNE last season either out of action (Ched Evans) or departed (Tom Cannon), finding a regular goalscorer in the transfer window was always going to be vital for Lowe. Keane might be just that, having scored 52 league goals since the start of 2020-21, a tally that only seven players have managed more than across the top four tiers in that period.
Preston’s start to the season has arguably been more impressive considering their shift in playing style from last term. While they’ve remained fairly passive in possession and are by no means a team that likes to string long open-play passing sequences, they have become a lot less direct in 2023-24, with their direct speed upfield dropping from 1.47 metres per second (8th highest) to 0.96 (2nd lowest) in the Championship since the start of the season.
Anybody who glances over Preston’s attacking metrics this season could rightly be baffled, considering their strong league start.
They’ve averaged the fourth-lowest non-penalty shots per game in the Championship at the time of writing (9.0), while their non-penalty expected goals average of 0.92 is higher than only five teams. Their average of 14.1 touches in the opposition box per game is lower than every other Championship side.
They’re passive in possession too, with their 40.2% average the fourth lowest in the league, while their field tilt of 37.4% – a measure of territorial dominance between teams looking at the share of possession each team has in their attacking third compared to their opponent – is only higher than Sheffield Wednesday (33.6%) and QPR (29.3%).
Their attacking stats might look meek, but Preston are a solid side in defence. They don’t give opponents many good opportunities, with just 0.99 xG from non-penalty shots per game this season by the opposition – that’s the fifth best average in the division. They have only conceded four goals from these non-penalty chances across their seven games, too. This isn’t far departed from their good defensive record last season – they kept 17 clean sheets overall in 2022-23, which was fewer only than the two automatically promoted sides, Burnley (21) and Sheffield United (19), and the two sides to play in the Championship play-off final: Luton (20) and Coventry City (20).
The teams to keep the most clean sheets and concede the fewest goals across the Championship in the last eight seasons have all won automatic promotion, so maybe having the platform of a solid defence isn’t a bad plan.
There’s a very long way to go in this Championship season, with Preston still having 39 games remaining. And although their underlying attacking and ball-retention numbers look weak, teams have built Championship promotion-winning sides on having an excellent defence before.
Should they win promotion back to the top flight after a 63-year wait it would be the fourth longest gap between years as a top-flight club in England, behind Bradford City (78 years before 1999-00), Oldham Athletic (69 before 1991-92) and Bristol City (66 before 1976-77). Nobody predicted Luton’s promotion to the Premier League last season, so who’s to say Preston can’t provide another footballing fairy tale?